As news broke last week that Tony Abbott was stepping up the government's push for laws compelling phone and internet firms to keep customer metadata, this time adding that it is "absolutely critical" to fighting child pornography online, I was in the middle of reading Australian author Anna Funder’s justly praised book Stasiland, about East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.
The Stasi’s intrusive spying into every aspect of life collected detailed micro-data, so isn’t directly comparable, but nonetheless it got me thinking about how far we are going down a similar path.
Certainly both were/are justified on the grounds of protecting national security. And both used data collection to bolster a shaky domestic position, for it is no surprise that Mr Abbott’s latest foray into this issue came after his mauling in the Liberal Partly parliamentary party room, and attendant poor showing in the media and opinion polls.
In a major statement yesterday, plus a teaser last Wednesday about the need for further national security reforms, Mr Abbott broadened the government’s case over so-called data retention, which police say is vital to combating terrorism, but also a wide range of crimes including child exploitation.
Under the government's proposal, phone and internet firms would be forced to keep metadata such as the time and place of phone calls, and the origin and destination of emails, for at least two years. It does not include the content of communications.
Mr Abbott also proposes stripping dual nationals of their Australian citizenship if they are involved in terrorism.
Labor said it will work with the government but wants to see the detail of what is being proposed before giving its position.
But last Tuesday shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus raised some concerns in principle, saying there was a danger Australia would send its problems offshore by cancelling citizenships.
Greens spokesman for communications, WA’s Senator Scott Ludlam said last Wednesday that “the government’s campaign is looking increasingly desperate and hyperbolic, with the Prime Minister claiming that law enforcement would practically cease to exist if the scheme is not immediately implemented.
“Coming on the same day as the announcement that the open-ended scheme would cost an extraordinary $400 million, the Prime Minister’s attempt to ramp up the mass-surveillance rhetoric coincides with increasingly sceptical comments by ALP spokespeople and strengthening opposition within the community.
“The Attorney General’s Department could provide no evidence, from anywhere in the world, that mandatory data retention improves community safety or helps reduce crime.
Senator Ludlum pointed out that the proposals may face insurmountable hurdles in the Senate. “Mr Abbott seems to think that terrifying Australians into supporting a mass-surveillance scheme is the answer to his flat-lining approval rating. He is in for an unpleasant shock.”
Way back in 1992 Paul Keating famously described the Senate as “unrepresentative swill.” As recent election results and political events have shown us thankfully he was wrong.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.